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Ursus Factory and the Sixth Generation of Guitar Rock

June 10, 2021

I’VE BEEN NOTICING clear signs of me turning into an “old fart” over the last few years. It’s only a few short months before I will turn 50, and even though my past is steeped deeply in the 1990s Helsinki Underground-rock-scene, it seems ever harder to remember how that era felt to a thirty-something.

I’ve recently been listening to one of my favourite podcasts, where the host, Tommi Liimatta, coined the term “The Sixth Generation of Rock”. According to Liimatta people like Remu Aaltonen (Hurriganes), Dave Lindholm and Juice Leskinen (all Finnish legends), were part of the first wave. Bands like Eppu Normaali, Pelle Miljoona and Hassisen Kone were already part of the second generation, while Hearthill, CMX and YUP belong to generation number three. Bands like HIM, The Rasmus are examples of the fourth generation, while PMMP and their contemporaries belong to generation five. The new wave of musicians like Jukka Nousiainen are the forefront of the Sixth Generation of Rock.

Most of my career as a guitar technician has centred around fourth generation bands, but I also had many opportunities to get to know some of the older artists. I must admit, though, that I have some trouble coming to grips with the younger Rock generations; I don’t really know how to walk in their shoes, and what their own approach to making music and the role of their guitar gear is.

A while back, I made a conscious decision to immerse myself in the music of possibly the most talked-about young underground musician, Jukka Nousiainen. I made an effort to try to get to the bottom of how he – and other musicians in the Sixth Generation – approach making music for a living. Tommi Liimatta’s characterisation seemed to hit the spot, as I had noticed that many of the sounds on the new records don’t seem to have been cooked up in the studio. The sounds are rough, and most of the equipment used seems heterogenous and relatively old. Guitars have the strings sticking out of the headstock, and the pedals seem strewn across the floor haphazardly. Not everybody is exactly in tune and some sounds are a bit clogged up. The whole scene seems handmade – from the merchandise to the self-released records – and independent in the truest sense of the term.

Watching this clip made it clear to me, that Jukka Nousiainen’s approach to the technical and aesthetic aspects of his music were quite contrary to what I’ve been trying to achieve with our clean and well designed Custom Boards pedalboards.

Then I remembered my youth, and the way we were making fun of technically accomplished studio guitarists, like the legendary Juha Björninen, who, to us, played “too nicely”, and whose sound seemed far “too sterile” and “honed” to our ears. Now, strongly going on Fifty, I realise I’m sitting at the other end of the table. Some of my most valued clients, musicians like Mikko Kosonen or Tuomas Wäinölä, are the Björninens of this era. I may try as hard as I can, but I cannot beam myself back into my 30-year old “hippy” state of mind, and mock my generation’s most-talented guitarists. Still, it’s making me feel a little ill at ease. Am I – is Custom Boards – still a relevant player in the eyes of the new wave?

MY FIRST OPPORTUNITY to get a taste of the Sixth Generation’s onstage energy was at Mara Balls-gig, fronted by Maria Mattila.

This first taste won me over completely, so I attended another Mara Balls-show. One thing that bugged me, though, was that Mattila’s guitar sound was plagued by an intermittent signal and unstable output. I managed to get in touch with the guitarist, and offered to help her pro-bono. I was glad that she took me up on my offer, so Custom Boards built her an easy-to-use, but professionally designed pedalboard, which will make life on the road easier for her.

Quite recently I stumbled across a You Tube channel, which helped me further close the gap between myself and the current generation of up-and-coming Rock musicians. Funnily, this music show is the produced by Jari-Mikko Pajunen, who runs both a parcel service, as well as a music shop (Aron Soitin), at the other end of the same building that Custom Boards operates from.

The four-part series is called “TVTV Rockstars 2020”, and is hosted by Teppo Vapaus, a reporter who seems to know a whole lot more about current trends in Rock music than I do. I realised right from the first couple of minutes, that this programme was made for a “old guy” like me, giving me precious insights into the new generation’s approach to life and music-making.

The first episodes featured artists such as Maustetytöt, Sorsajengi, Luukas Oja, and Ursus Factory, whose setups I dissected with a lot of interest (and a wince or two) from my living-room sofa. It hurt my soul a bit, when Teppo Vapaus asked the Maustetytöt’s guitarist, Anna Karjalainen, if she had considered having herself a pedalboard made. As if to underpin her indifference to such mundane technical aspects of music, she answered “I haven’t yet warmed to the whole idea; I’ve been doing fine with the pedals as they are…” (Click below for this interview.)

To tell the truth, I had already heard from colleagues that Maustetytöt were notoriously slow setting up (and tearing down) their backline at festivals. Many technicians were drive to the brink of a nervous breakdown by the band’s phlegmatic attitude, because time is always the most constraining factor at festivals. This got me to thinking if there was a way I could help them to see the problems their way of thinking was causing, without scaring the young women away with my imposing stature and technology-centred attitude.

Next up were Ursus Factory. They are a two-man band, which is always somehow refreshing. I had been to shows by the British duo Royal Blood and by Cairo Knife Fight from the USA. I really liked this video, where a two-man concept have been taken to the max.

In my view – Ursus Factory could keep up nicely with those two-pieces. In the TV-programme the band comes across as a super-energetic live act that simply bowled me over. The guitarist seemed to have a pedalboard, and he would swarm and hover over it, turning the use of his effect pedals into a kind of dance routine. Their show is clearly putting the fun and party aspects of music first, without worrying too much about technical details. They seem to stay completely clear of click tracks, which means that everything you’ll hear on stage is played by two people. This is something that warms my old heart. (Click the link below to see their act)

Suddenly things started to move, without me having any idea what set them in motion. Maybe somebody had mentioned something, or maybe the band had seen our black-and-yellow shop windows. Anyhow, very shortly after their TVTV appearance Ursus Factory’s guitarist, Jussi Pelkonen, visited Custom Boards’ HQ, asking us for help with his guitar rig.

I wasn’t quite sure how to approach him, and I didn’t know what problems he had had with his system, so I asked Mr Pelkonen to fill in our planning form, so I could book an appointment with him. It has always formed the basis of our service to get a good idea of what type of music our clients are making, but because I had experienced Ursus Factory’s music only recently on TVTV's episode, and liked what I saw, I made sure to book an extended appointment time right from the start. I tried very hard to get a mental picture of how Custom Boards would be able to help the band, and what type of benefits our services would bring to their music. Who knows, perhaps we might be able to turn them into an even more effective gigging machine?

URSUS FACTORY first started in 2013, when guitarist Pelkonen and drummer Aleksi Ripatti set off on a street musician “tour”, during which the pair played in many towns and cities in eastern and central Europe. They honed their act in the most demanding situation – trying to catch the attention of passers-by. They returned to Finland as a well-oiled music machine, and decided they wanted to start a three-piece band specialising in energetic Rock. They auditioned a whole row of bassists unsuccessfully, before realising that their trip together had fused them into a very special musical unit, which made adding another member almost impossible.

Unperturbed, Ursus Factory pursued their musical vision as a two-piece unit. Guitarist Pelkonen started using his octaver pedal to fill out the bottom end of their music. As one of Pelkonen’s musical heroes is Jack White of the White Stripes (a two-piece as well), the thought of making Rock music without a bass player didn’t seem especially odd to him.

You would think that the members of Ursus Factory, a band that plays very Garage- and Punk-inspired Rock, might be self-taught musicians, but this isn’t the case. Guitarist Pelkonen has studied music at Helsinki’s Jazz/Pop Conservatory and the Sibelius Academy. Drummer Aleksi Ripatti has played music nearly all his life, from Rock to Prog, and is studying at Helsinki University’s Faculty of Social Sciences. His bachelor thesis deals with androgyny in Rock music – something that Hanoi Rocks got him interested in. This also means that putting on women’s clothes on stage every now and then is part and parcel of their band’s image. Anything that will grab an audience’s attention is a good thing; something they have learned, no doubt, while playing on the streets of Europe.

Ursus Factory’s audience is still growing steadily, a fact that has also been picked up by Finland’s national broadcaster YLE. Recently they have been featured in episode of the series Luovia Suhteita, and had been part of a programme anchored by Kingston Wall’s drummer Sami Kuoppamäki, called Timantinen Keikka. That programme also gave you a detailed glimpse of Jussi Pelkonen’s pedalboard.

I also listened to the band’s record. Their songs are carried by chunky and gritty riffs, some unusual sounds, as well as two-part lead lines. Their arrangements are oftentimes very clever and inventive, while the vocals seem to have taken influences from Rap. I found many song that I really liked, but, to me, this here is Ursus Factory’s stand-out track, a bonafide ear worm:

I continued my investigations on You Tube and found two videos of the band’s shows at Helsinki’s Tavastia Club from 2018 and 2019. Those shows made it obvious that Ursus Factory’s shows were offering something very special. There’s a huge energy build-up between the duo and their audience. The band clearly feels at home on stage, and doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. This interaction, this type of magical connection between the artists and the audience is what live shows are really about, and UF seems to reach this magical place effortlessly.

Here onstage Ursus Factory’s dynamic duo come across as clever and skilled young lads, who nevertheless have no problem forsaking their academic background when they start to play, and simply want to have fun. Their edgy and somewhat unpredictable style of music is very exciting – a fact I wouldn’t want to undermine with a scholarly approach to tonal nirvana.

I also came across a rig rundown – filmed by Rockway – which I watched with interest, but also somewhat terrified, the evening before our first meeting.

JUSSI PELKONEN arrived with the band’s promoter-cum-guitar-tech, Anssi Tähtinen, in tow. Our whole team was present, which means Eetu Lehtinen, our pedalboard wiring specialist, our new recruit Janne Puurtinen, who knows his way with synthesizers and who has given us some valuable new perspectives over the last year, as well as myself.

Pelkonen and his tech clearly weren’t taking this business lightheartedly, as the guys had packed along Ursus Factory’s complete stage setup, which comprised three amplifiers and two pedalboards.

The fact that our meeting took place in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic felt a bit frustrating, as the use of face masks always makes it harder to connect with another person. Thankfully we had set aside enough time for this meeting, which helped that the situation eventually felt relaxed for everybody.

We unpacked and hooked up the whole rig, after which Pelkonen went through his most important sounds and settings. While I watched the guitarist’s demonstration, I couldn’t help but feel the same kind of energy flowing from him at our workshop that I had already noticed watching the You Tube clips. His tones are rough, in your face, and often unpredictable, and always steering clear of well-trodden paths and Rock clichés. This guy is clearly his own man.

HIS SIGNATURE SOUND is a mash-up of two completely separate signal routes. Jussi plays a Fender Stratocaster with two separate outputs. The Strat’s traditional pickups go through his first pedalboard and onwards to a Marshall JCM800 2203 head with a 4x10” cabinet, as well as to a Vox AC30 combo.

Jussi uses a Submarine pickup on his guitar to supply the band’s bass content. This pickup only works on the lowest pair of strings, with the signal being run through its own bass effect pedals and into an Orange Tiny Terror Bass head with a 4x10” TC Electronic cabinet.

Jussi uses 18 different effect pedals, spread out over two pedalboards, and he seems to use them all. Having everything under control can’t be very easy in a heady live situation. Jussi told us of his specific problems, which sounded quite familiar to me.

“My rig tends to feed back. Sometimes my sound is fantastic, but sometimes it all sounds like sh*t. I have trouble concentrating on my singing, because switching between sounds takes a lot of effort. Sometimes I turn on the wrong pedals at the wrong time. I have also been having difficulties with humming and buzzing – something I have tried to get to grips with myself.”

We decided to approach his dilemma with different routing and splitter boxes. I showed him different splitters, A/B- and A/B/Y-boxes, which could be used to switch certain basic sounds – like overdrive and distortion – on and off with one simple step on the switch, while leaving the rest of his effects “as is”, meaning he could switch them on and off at will with ample room for improvisation.

I watched Jussi’s reactions very carefully, making sure not to impose my views on him. It was very clear to me that his playing is admired by his peers, so it was important not to take his playing and his sounds into a wrong direction. We had to preserve the integrity and energy of the Tavastia shows I had watched.

Jussi told us that the band had just signed a recording deal with Johanna Kustannus, who is part of the multinational Universal. This was interesting news, indeed, as Jukka Nousiainen or Mara Balls had vehemently steered clear of large labels to preserve their Indie-credibility. The more I listened to him the more I got the feeling that, while Ursus Factory was loved for its gritty fuzz-drenched sounds and wild stage antics, Jussi was at heart a singer-songwriter. He wanted to be able to concentrate a lot more on his singing onstage, instead of being tied to watching his feet and stepping on the right effects at the correct time.

I can appreciate this attitude, because crazy, saturated guitar sounds are not in enough to fascinate an audience in the long run, especially in the larger scale. If Jussi really was most interested in getting his compositions across, we had to find a way to make his effect switching way easier. We had to up the ante.

MY FIRST CHOICE was a flagship, and rather expensive, MIDI-controlled True Bypass Looper. I was sure I could solve all of Jussi’s problems with this unit, even if the device seemed a little over-the-top. It felt strange to show something highly technical like this to a Garage band, but I knew that a central controller was the most likely solution, if he wanted to perform complicated switching manoeuvres quickly and easily.

The amount of switches on the first device seemed to strike fear into the guitarist, but when I took a similar, but smaller unit from the shelf, and after Eetu had shown Jussi the functions and advantages of such a looper, Pelkosen’s face lit up. The new centrepiece of Jussi’s rig would be a Musicom Lab EFX LE II true bypass looper, which offered just enough programmable loops and other functions to control the rig successfully and efficiently.

The Musicom EFX LE II would enable Jussi to group his pedals into logical loops, control all the amp channel switching, stack effects on top, and switch the bass section on and off at the right time. Using one central controller for the whole rig would surely serve the onstage presentation and the flow of the music best.

Ursus Factory’s new record, called Onnellinen Sukupolvi, was slated to be released only two weeks after our meeting, and they would stream a live show via YLE, too, which meant we had a clearly-defined deadline to make. We chose the pedals very carefully, and we put a lot of thought into designing the best signal paths. We didn’t manage to cram every effect into the rig, but things seemed to shape up nicely into a sensible setup that also satisfied our client.

This was a win-win-situation, the band needed our help, and we can never have enough interesting and demanding clients to fire up our creativity. We felt chuffed that we could contribute to such an innovative set of tones, and also that the band had turned to us for the job. In the end we also find out how it happened. Jussi told us – while we were packing up his stuff – that he was a great admirer of Mara Ball’s fuzz sounds. He had read my article on helping Maria Mattila with her rig, which meant my pro-bono work had born fruit.

WITH THE DEADLINE LOOMING we put in the hours, especially Eetu faced a herculean task in putting this huge and complicated rig together on time. This project resulted on one of the most massive rigs we have had the honour to realise so far.

All of the effect pedals that would be switched on and off regularly for certain song parts were connected to the Musicom Lab EFX LE II’s loops, which meant mostly fuzz-, overdrive, distortion- and modulation effects. The last two loops split the signal into stereo using a Boss Harmonist and TC Electronic’s Flashback II delay.

The stereo signal is sent from the looper to a TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb, which is virtually running all the time. The HOF’s left channel is routed to the main amplifier – the Marshall JCM800 – while the right channel passes through Keeley's 30ms doubler effect to the Vox AC30. This second amp really adds a lot of depth to the dry tones of the Marshall. The Vox is also more sensitive to signal level changes than the Marshall, which makes it a great tool for volume boosts, for example by stepping on an additional fuzz pedal.

The icing on the cake was provided by the super-sturdy Lehle BTN-switches that we put into the Musicom looper. The factory switches are fine, but the German Lehles are built like tanks.

WE HAD DECIDED to go with two separate pedalboards for the Ursus Factory rig. To make everything easier, both cables from the Strat would be connected to the “main” pedalboard, but the signals would then run their discrete paths from there.

We also used a MIDI-controlled effects looper for the bass pedalboard, which would be remote controlled from the guitar board. We installed a Voodoo Lab HEX, which offers six programmable loops. Five loops were used for the different effect pedals on the board, with loop number six serving as a mute switch, giving more leeway for live improvisation.

The bass system turned into its own ecosystem, distinctly separate from the guitar rig. Thanks to the remote control the bass board doesn’t even have to be placed at the front of the stage, as long as all settings have been checked beforehand during soundcheck.

Last in line, behind the distortions and the octave effects, is a Mantic Concepts Density Hulk. This effect is based on the old DOD Meatbox and DBX Boombox effects, and it basically bombs the PA-system with a chunky bass signal. This happens courtesy of the Hulk’s Dry Out- and Sub Out-outputs. The pumped up effect signal is then routed to the PA using a DI-box. Because only the Dry Out is connected to the effects looper, the sub-effect doesn’t affect the bass amplifier.

Both guitar signal paths are also routed through separate DI-boxes, which means Jussi is running six guitar- and bass-channels live. Mixing all these sound sources together results in a massive wall of sound, which created the illusion of a “complete” Rock band playing, when in fact it is “only” two musicians on stage.

We further added a TC Electronic Ditto audio looper to the bass board, right behind the Voodoo Lab HEX, so Jussi can also implement bass loops in the band’s live shows. Ursus Factory hadn’t used audio loopers to date, but we had touched on the subject during our planning meeting, so we decided it would only be prudent to “future-proof” the board in this way.

WE KEPT TO OUR DEADLINE and Ursus Factory – along with their right hand man Anssi Tähtinen – came to pick up their improved rig. Our team was also present in full, meaning there were six people looking in awe at the new setup.

Jussi seemed to be very satisfied with our creation. We had programmed his basic settings into the Musicom looper, but the vital fine-tuning would be made at their rehearsal studio. It was also agreed that Eetu would serve as an additional technical assistant during the dress rehearsals for the YleXPop 2021 -live stream that would take place a week later. (Pic: Tomi Palsa)

Pelkonen seemed rearing to lay his hands on his new rig, and to programme new sounds. He is well aware of the natural limitations of a two-piece band, and is already talking about making better use of the effects on offer to build better, more dramatic suspense lines for the band’s songs. The band has a full schedule of shows booked, so there will be certainly enough opportunities for experimentation during the summer and autumn. I don’t doubt for a moment that we will be called upon to add effects and make updates to Jussi’s rig in the future, in order to to keep him inspired.

FOR MYSELF this collaboration was extremely enjoyable. It brought me a considerable step nearer to the way the current generation of Rock musicians thinks and works, which in turn made me understand a whole lot better how Ursus Factory gets their creative juices flowing. I believe this band will go far. As I watch their newest video for a song called “Mimosa”, I’m enchanted by the mixture of sheer energy and abandon that their song conveys. This track’s fantastic bridge makes me realise that Jussi’s songwriting quill isn’t about to dry up any time soon – I’m sure the best is yet to come.

It will be interesting to see if Ursus Factory will try to make the jump to building a fanbase outside of Finland. We touched on this subject during our meeting, and the band weren’t ruling anything out, but they weren’t blowing their trumpet about it either. Check Spotify for three English-language versions of the duo’s songs. To my ears the fan-favourite “Oot Pomo” sounds just as fresh in English.

I’m very determined to catch the band live at the next opportunity. I want to experience for myself the type of energy, interactivity and joy Ursus Factory conveys through their live videos and recordings. The Finnish press is full of juicy descriptions, such as “young and passionate, sharp and unpretentious, conscious, wild and free, sensitive, talkative, talented, freaky with brazen indifference”.

I can only hope that other young acts, such as Maustetytöt, will turn up at Custom Boards, because we have the same goal. I want to see to it that our home-grown standard bearers of Guitar Rock are well-equipped to hold their own on festival stages with international acts next on the bill. We need the new wave to drive home the good news that electric guitar isn’t dead. Let the mainstream do what it does, but the real power of reinvention and renewal lies with the bands of the “Sixth Generation of Guitar Rock”.

10.06.2021 Kimmo Aroluoma (Cover Pic: Tomi Palsa)
The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own web shop in Helsinki, Finland.



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